When Dale Tallon announces the Florida Panthers’ first overall pick in June, it will almost certainly be one of three players; Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart, Kingston Frontenac winger Sam Bennett, or Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad. If Tallon is serious about turning the Panthers into a contending team for years to come he must take Ekblad.
While the Panthers were one of the lowest scoring teams in the NHL last season, their blue line was absolutely abysmal as well. With the No. 2 overall pick last year, Tallon passed on potential franchise defenseman Seth Jones to take big center Aleksander Barkov. While Barkov showed amazing flashes this year, nothing was done to address the team’s organization void on the blue line. When a well-past-his-prime Ed Jovanovski’s return from injury was hailed as helping the blue line, nothing more needed to be said.
When Aaron Ekblad was granted ‘exceptional status’ to play in the Ontario Hockey League at age 15, he joined truly elite company. To date, only Ekblad, New York Islanders superstar John Tavares, current OHL defenseman Sean Day and “The Next One,” projected 2015 No. 1 pick, center Connor McDavid, have been granted such stature.
Ekblad’s play has spoken for itself. In his three seasons of junior hockey, he saw his points and penalty minutes increase every season, further cementing his elite mix of offense and tenacity. Adding a player of Ekblad’s caliber to the young and skilled forward corp Tallon has assembled can be a major game changer. Ekblad can not only get the puck up to forwards such Barkov, Jonathan Hubderdeau and Nick Bjugstad, but can also make plays defensively that makes the goals they score stand.
In terms of current young roster defensemen, Dmitry Kulikov is what he is (a solid puck mover, but not exactly a star), and while Erik Gudbranson has shown flashes of tenacity, he’ll never be a major offensive contributor. Ekblad has the potential to be to the Panthers what the likes of Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, and Zdeno Chara have been to their respective teams; star blue liners that helped carry their franchises to the Stanley Cup. While taking a flashy forward sounds like a good route to take, the reality is there would be “too many cooks and not enough ovens.”
Drafting Ekblad with the No. 1 overall pick addresses both the team’s biggest position of need and the common link of almost all great teams. Ekblad could very well be the key to ending the Panthers’ almost 15-year rebuilding process and getting the team on the right track towards perennial contention.